The NBA Finals get under way tonight (ABC, 8:30 p.m. ET). ESPN experts lay down the truth about what to expect from the Cavs-Spurs title bout.
1. Fact or fiction: This series is primarily about LeBron James.
Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: Fiction. He's the most important part, but hardly the whole story. If Tim Duncan evaporates, it's a pretty different series, right? What about if LeBron plays fairly well and San Antonio wins? And, without Cleveland's excellent defense, James won't even be in a position to maybe deliver a miracle.
Greg Anthony, ESPN: Fiction. Even if LeBron is great, others have to step up. The James "gang" has to play well -- King James needs room to operate and if the Cavs shoot 3-pointers well (42 percent in the four wins) that won't allow the Spurs' help defenders to pinch off the paint as much. The Cavs need balance offensively and great effort on the boards.
Chris Broussard, ESPN Mag: Fiction. Duncan is going for his fourth ring, which could put him on equal -- if not greater footing -- than Shaquille O'Neal as the best player of this era. LeBron, of course, is a huge story, even bigger than Duncan, but we can't overlook the significance of this for the Big Fundamental's legacy.
Ric Bucher, ESPN Mag: Fiction. Let's hope not. He's the most intriguing story, but hardly the only one. Can Tim Duncan cement his claim to the league's best all-time PF? Will this be the Finals Tony Parker finally makes his presence felt? Does Big Shot Bob (Horry) have one more in him? Is Daniel Gibson for real?
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: Fiction. This series is about LeBron James' supporting cast. No way he gets all the openings he saw against Detroit in Game 5 -- the Spurs' defense is too good. The Spurs are going to force the Drew Goodens and Larry Hugheses of the world to beat them.
Scoop Jackson, Page 2: Fiction. From a media and fan standpoint, yes it's a fact. But from a basketball standpoint, it's all about the Spurs confirming that they are the New England Patriots of the NBA.
Tim Legler, ESPN: Fact. Let's face it, LeBron has been the primary story of the postseason. His ability to take on the NBA's best defense, and a perennial championship contender, will be the ultimate test. He has eliminated some of the doubts that people have had about his ability to take a team to this point. How well he plays will determine the outcome of the series.
Chris Palmer, ESPN Mag: Fiction. No series is ever about one player. He will be the show, but it's about more than him. Like MJ and Magic before him, LeBron can't do it alone. If it's about anything, it's Duncan and the Spurs on the brink of a true dynasty.
Chris Sheridan, ESPN: Fact. Of course, no series is ever really about one single thing, but this is LeBron's graduation to the next level (four years after he left high school, coincidentally), and we're about to learn whether he's ready to become a titlist or just a finalist. All eyes are on him, not Tim Duncan.
Marc Stein, ESPN: Fact. I wanted to answer fiction, because I'm just as eager to see if Duncan can tie Shaquille O'Neal with four rings. But I'm a realist, too. If LeBron commands 98.7 percent of the overall media spotlight and focus, as expected, how can I quibble?
David Thorpe, Scouts Inc.: Fiction. The Spurs can devote enough resources to slow James, forcing other Cavs to make shots. And don't forget Duncan, Parker, Manu Ginobili and Big Shot Bob.
2. Fact or fiction: LeBron has a weak supporting cast.
Abbott: Fiction. He has a very strong supporting cast on defense, and streaky shooters on offense. But without those shooters spreading the floor, and his demonstrated willingness to pass, no chance James gets to score 29 of 30 in Game 5 against Detroit. Eric Snow has made huge defensive plays; Gibson is a difference maker; Zydrunas Ilgauskas scores in crunch time; Anderson Varejao is a beast; Donyell Marshall, Damon Jones and Gooden are all candidates to win a playoff game with their shooting. It's nobody's fantasy team, but they have been getting the job done.
Anthony: Fiction. While the Cavs don't overwhelm you with talent, they are very good at playing to their strengths. They are great at defending the post and rebounding. They know how and why they win and Mike Brown has done a good job of getting them to buy into his system.
Broussard: Fiction. They're a strong supporting cast in that they are solid role players who have learned how to play very well off of LeBron. Individually, none of them are even remotely close to being a star and that's why they could be considered "weak.'' But in a few years, when the Cavs have won titles, we will look back and say, "LeBron was great, but he did have Gibson and Varejao and Gooden, etc." In other words, our respect for these guys will grow as they win.
Bucher: Fiction. Two ways to look at this: Yes, it's the weakest supporting cast ever to appear in the Finals, just as the three teams the Cavs beat posed the easiest road to the Finals ever. Or, the Cavs' supporting cast is much better than it's given credit for being, which is how Cleveland upset the best team in the Eastern Conference (Detroit). I'll go with the latter.
Hollinger: Fact. If he had a good supporting cast they'd have won 60 games, not 50. The Cavs have some decent players, but the glaring lack of shooting and backcourt help held them back most of the year, and if Gibson can't stay hot it will in the Finals too.
Jackson: Fact. Only because they are playing against a team that has three bona fide All-Stars (TD, TP, Ginobili) and everyone on the Spurs has been here, done this before.
Legler: Fiction. LeBron's supporting cast has been good enough to help him get to the NBA Finals. Now that the Cavs have a second reliable scoring option in Gibson, they are a much more complete team. They are one of the five best defensive teams in the league and they have a front line that can rebound with any team in the NBA.
Palmer: Fiction. Weak supporting casts don't get you to the NBA Finals. Big Z may be the most underrated player over 30 and though not spectacularly talented, each member of the starting five has his specialty, which is a big reason the Cavs have made it this far.
Sheridan: Fiction. It may be a flawed supporting cast, but it is a cast that is not weak (Gooden and Ilgauskas are both effective if unflashy frontcourt players), and it is a cast that is not afraid (Gibson and Varejao were nothing if not fearless against the Pistons).
Stein: Fact. Amazing as it is to see LeBron on this stage as a 22-year-old and as brilliant as he was against Detroit, Cleveland doesn't get to the Finals as presently constituted without a favorable draw in a dreadful conference. If Chicago wins its final regular-season game in New Jersey and these Cavs have to beat Miami, Detroit and Chicago just to get to the Finals, are they here now?
Thorpe: Fiction. They may be weaker than San Antonio's, but many of them found ways to greatly impact their team in this playoff run. Their talents on defense are not to be ignored either.
3. Fact or fiction: If San Antonio wins, it is one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history.
Abbott: Fiction. I don't even know how you measure something like that, but it would seem to me that, somehow or another, consecutive titles are way more dynastic than titles here and there.
Anthony: Fact. Longevity, consistency and winning are the hallmark of any dynasty. I know the Spurs have never won back-to-back titles but every year they have a chance and if they get the fourth, their legacy as the team of this era will be firmly entrenched. What's scary is it doesn't have to end this year -- their core is young, hungry and led by the best power forward ever to play. Defense will always be a constant and winning follows.
Broussard: Fact. Four titles in nine years is a definite dynasty. For instance, Bird's Celtics won just three titles in his 13 years.
Bucher: Fiction. How 'bout one of the oddest dynasties? There's nothing harder than winning a title as a defending champion, or so I'm told by those who have done it or tried. Until they accomplish that, I have a hard time putting them in the category of the Bulls, Lakers and Celtics.
Hollinger: Fact. Just because the titles weren't consecutive doesn't take anything away from them. Four titles for the Duncan-Popovich team is definitely dynasty material in my book.
Jackson: Fiction. Dynasties dominate, great teams win often. There's a difference.
Legler: Fact. Four championships in nine seasons says it all, particularly when the Spurs have had a reasonable chance to get to the Finals in every other season of Duncan's career. They have been the gold standard in the NBA for almost a decade and have been immune to all of the pitfalls to which other organizations have fallen prey: free-agent losses, feuding stars, coaching changes and complacency.
Palmer: Fact. In this team-hopping era of free agency, the Spurs are perennial contenders and would have won four titles in the last nine years. About half the teams in the league have never even won one. San Antonio's never won back-to-back titles but the Spurs seem to win it about every other year which in some ways is more impressive.
Sheridan: Fiction. To qualify for being a dynasty, you have to win multiple consecutive championships -- emphasis on the word consecutive. It shows you were the class of the NBA year after year after year.
Stein: Fiction. Three titles in five seasons would be a sensational run, especially considering how hard it's been just to get out of the West in that span. But you've got to win back-to-back titles at least once to share dynasty space with MJ's Bulls, Magic's Lakers and certainly Russell's Celtics.
Thorpe: Fact. Dynasties are built around a core of people who achieve multiple titles. San Antonio has done that with one of the best coaches in NBA history and one of the top five post players of all time.
4. Fact or fiction: The Spurs will steamroll the Cavs.
Abbott: Fiction. The Spurs are the way better team against the whole league. But against the Cavs, that's way less clear. The Cavaliers defend the Spurs well. Also, the outside/inside defensive combination of Bruce Bowen and Duncan hampers almost every high-scoring perimeter player, but I just watched a whole bunch of video and they can't do much with LeBron.
Anthony: Fiction. Cleveland matches up a lot better with San Antonio than people realize. The Cavs are the best post defenders and the best rebounding team the Spurs will have seen this postseason, period! King James is also the best player the Spurs will have faced (with all due respect to Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony, Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams). LeBron presents questions for which there are no answers. This is going to be a very competitive series. Spurs in seven.
Broussard: Fiction. I've got Spurs in seven because of their experience, but the Cavs match up well with them. While Duncan cannot be stopped, length bothers him a bit so Ilgauskas will at least make him work. A key is how well Larry Hughes can contain Ginobili and how well Gibson can contain Parker.
On the other side of the ball, the Spurs have no one to slow down LeBron. Bowen, as great as he is, is too small. If the Cavs' supporting cast makes shots, and if LeBron attacks consistently when the Spurs stick with the Cavs' shooters, the Cavs can win.
What's the call? Most of our experts are picking Pop and the Spurs.
Bucher: Fact. Yes, San Antonio's execution will not break down the way the Pistons' did, offensively or defensively. Spurs in five.
Hollinger: Fact. Sorry, I have no respect for the Eastern Conference. I suppose if Cleveland plays over its heads and gets a few breaks in close games it could extend things for a while, but that's about the best I can do as far as optimism for the Cavaliers. Spurs in five.
Jackson: Fiction. I do think the Spurs will win, but steamroll might be a little drastic. Remember, the Lakers were supposed to "steamroll" the Pistons in 2004 and the Mavs were supposed to "steamroll" the Heat last year. Stranger things have happened, ya know. Spurs in five. (This reminds me of when AI took Philly to the Finals in 2001. LeBron against a great team is good enough that he could get one game on his own. The difference? AI never got back to the Finals; LeBron will.)
Legler: Fiction. The Spurs will win in six, but the Cavs' defense is more than enough to keep them in every game. I expect the series to be played in the mid-80s and low-90s, which will enable Cleveland to be competitive. The emergence of Gibson means that San Antonio has to prepare differently and account for his presence -- that could mean additional driving lanes for LeBron.
Palmer: Fiction. No way. Much like the Pistons in 2004, no one's even giving the Cavs a chance. Why? They've got one of the two best players in the game and they swept the season series. Plus, they've got a ton of confidence and have nothing to lose. True, there's no stopping Duncan but if they can figure out Parker it's wide open.
Sheridan: Fiction. I'm picking the Spurs to win the series in six, and a steamrolling would merit a Spurs-in-four pick. I think the Spurs will steamroll them in Game 1 or Game 2, but it'll only happen once during the series.
Stein: Fact. Spurs in five. Talk all you want about LeBron winning at least two games on his own or the Cavs knowing San Antonio's stuff so well that this will be closer than everyone expects. I still say experience, execution and the best team defense LeBron has ever seen make it 4-1.
Thorpe: Fiction. Cleveland's defense is capable of giving the Spurs a lot of problems. So is LeBron. And Ilgauskas has the size to bother Duncan. Cleveland's shooters should help the Cavs win a game or two at home, but probably not all three. I see the Spurs winning in six.